Lack of Noise Sparks Roaring Discussion

Although the streets might appear empty, the grandstands at the Monaco Grand Prix are filled to the brim. The buzz of conversation is suddenly halted when twenty cars fire up their engines. The drivers idly wait for the last red light to ignite. Suddenly, throttles are being stabbed and ferocious, animal-like screams fill the streets of Monte Carlo. Many might say they find a 150 decibel racket disturbing, yet ask any motorsport fan and they will tell you the opposite. For those who enjoy F1, it’s the paramount of sensory perception. What makes the sound of Formula 1 such a contemporary topic of debate?


A man-made spectacle

Formula 1 is the epitome of racing. More than 550 million people watch the sport over the course of a season. It’s not just the speed of these man-made machines or cutting-edge engineering, yet also the drama and story-telling that are involved. Each race weekend, the world's fastest cars compete on a unique circuit that has its own magnificent lay-out and structure. This way, F1 draws in viewers with visually striking and utterly captivating races. However, there is one essential element that makes Formula 1 special: its sound design.
 	Red Bull Racing’s Max Verstappen enters the track during 2017 Winter Testing in Barcelona,  Spain. Image by Joshua Paul.
Red Bull Racing’s Max Verstappen enters the track during 2017 Winter Testing in Barcelona,
Spain. Image by Joshua Paul.

Orchestrating our sense

Have you ever wondered why watching a movie without sound or music feels so empty? Or why watching a dubbed movie makes you feel awkward? David Hendy, author of the book ‘Noise: A History of Sound and Listening’, explains to us that sound directs our other senses. Just as it does in a Sci-fi movie - when a small model spaceship is made enormous by a thundering soundtrack. The reaction we have to certain sounds is something we have inherited from our stone-age ancestors. David Welch, researcher in Population Health at the University of Auckland, says: “it’s the sound of roaring thunder and a howling predator’s call that would pull our alarm bells 2 million years ago, just as they do now.” However, Welch claims that a different phenomenon explains our obsession over sound: “It’s about authority or power being under control, which suggests a high threshold of pleasure.” Yet, realising the importance of sound and experiencing this ‘authority over power’, doesn’t occur solely when driving a race car.

Fostering reverie of a tradition

Visiting a racetrack and only being separated from the cars and their experienced driver by just a chain-link fence will do the trick too. In fact, being drawn by the ear-twisting sound of the engines will happen even before you’ve entered the gate. This aural spectacle is what has attracted so many people to the F1 races since 1946. However, changes made in 2014 have kept many awake at night. Not only fans, but additionally drivers and team principals feel that ‘the sound of F1’ was abandoned six years ago. You might ask yourself: ‘If Formula 1 cars are the poster child of cutting-edge technology, design and speed - wouldn’t that mean they can produce a sound loud enough to rip apart your eardrums?” The answer is an adjacent yes. A 2020 F1 car can produce an amazing 134 Decibels, equal to a loud rock concert. Then why the fuss?

The V-series

Over the years, many developments have been made by the FIA (Federation Internationale de l’Automobile) in order to improve both performance and safety. In the late 90’s, the famous ‘screaming’ V12 engines were replaced by V10’s, due to some teams favouring reliability over performance. This was already a big change in sound output A few years later, the FIA continued the reduction of cylinders by changing to a V8, because of fuel inefficiency.
The biggest change happened in 2014, when the V8 was changed to a turbo charged V6. This improved the performance of the car immensely, but resulted in a ‘devolution’ of sound. Till this day, many people still vouch to change back to the V8 in order to retrieve the noise. Why hasn’t the FIA opted to change back, in favour of the public?

Win on Sunday, sell on Monday!

This all has to do with road relevance. Formula 1 needs engine manufacturers in order to keep the sport going. However, do the billion-dollar car manufacturers need F1? They justify their involvement by claiming that Formula 1 is advertising. It’s about drawing a connection from the race car, all the way down to the road car. Here we find our issue! There are big restrictions in the automotive world to reduce C02 emissions and the expense of fuel. It can be concluded that a return of the V8 engines would be beyond the pale. Therefore, the FIA has opted to keep the V6-hybrid engine for the next five years. Nevertheless, you can’t ignore the public. The FIA has been working on finding a solution. So, what are their planned changes for 2021?

Top: An MGU-H or Motor Generator Unit-heat by Garrett Motion. Part of the V6 -
Hybrid engine used by the Mercedes AMG F1 team

Constructive Criticism

We will get rather technical, I hope you don’t mind!
The V6-hybrid engine used today, produces around 5000 RPM (rounds per minute) less than the V12 that was famous for its screaming noise. This high-pitched sound, which is nostalgic to many F1 fans, can only be created if engine adjustments are made.
New regulations for 2021 state that the output must be 3000 RPM higher than this year. In order to produce this output, the fuel-flow limit will be raised. This allows more fuel to get into the engine for it to produce more power. The ‘RPM’ change is going to be an improvement, which can be heard around the track. However, out of all the 550 million F1 viewers, a sober 4 million physically attend a race. What about the viewers at home? In order to improve sound quality, the FIA has been testing several experimental onboard microphones. These are however, still in their testing phase. Fans are still eagerly awaiting what’s next. Has the FIA been caught up in a Catch-22 scenario?


While the sound has improved over the years, little progression has been made. The FIA has found its own Gordian knot. On one side, there is the demand for sustainable, clean and road relevant cars. While on the other side there are fans, drivers and other grid-inhabitants, not being pleased by anything less than a smoking, bellowing and V12 engine. Without either of these groups, Formula 1 would cease to exist. At the end of the day, the show must go on. We all want to keep enjoying these gas guzzling motorsport giants, yet not fear our childrens’ future. The search for a compromise continues… at least until 2020.

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